Someone once said: “the things you own end up owning you.” Actually, that intro might be dressing it up with profundity. It could have been Tyler Durden in Fight Club. But regardless of the source, is this not strikingly tragic in the case of relationships between surfers and the brands that claim them?
Take Andy Irons as the most recent and tragic example. He will forever be synonymous with Billabong, and he continues to posthumously rake in dollars on their behalf. It’s tragic to think that the face of Andy Irons might be more clearly recognized in the Billabong logo than in his son, Axel Irons, born shortly after his inglorious death in a Dallas hotel room.
And then there’s Eddie Aikau and the eternal question of whether or not he would go. As it happens, he hasn’t “gone” in a long time, and the irony is that this is more than likely due to the financial strife affecting Quiksilver than a lack of surf befitting of his memory, unless, of course, you believe their press release. Of course, Quiksilver need to put on a show of still supporting The Eddie, regardless of whether they can afford it. Not because of its value in the canon of surf history despite the best efforts of those like Sam George and the wonderful 30 for 30 ESPN aired, but because Eddie Aikau’s memory is not primarily that of a Hawaiian legend; it is one of Quiksilver the brand. And this brand has essentially bought and sold the remnants of his soul as hats and t-shirts.
Sponsorship deals of any real monetary value in pro surfing are hard to come by. We are not an industry awash with the financial wherewithal to give athletes what they deserve. Only the very top guys are making a good living. So when a recognizable, “core” brand comes calling, it’s not surprising that aspiring young surfers jump right in. Neither is it surprising that these brands will milk their surf cows dry, whether they are dead or alive.
Every major brand is on a mission to discover the next big star. Take Hurley, for example. Their quest to harvest uber-talented minors, led by 12 year old Eli Hanneman, is like something from a work of dystopian fiction. Talented children in the world of surfing are merely commodities.
Patronage outside of the core brands is even more dangerous. The energy drink behemoths throw such wads of cash around that their sponsorships overshadow their product. But the caffeine and sugar overloads that have millions of kids shaking with withdrawal after pulling all-night C.O.D. sessions are possibly less harmful than signing your life away as one of their sponsored athletes.
What is an acceptable sponsor’s dowry? Your board-space? Your image? Your life? No one said it was easy to make it in pro surfing, but is it worth selling your soul (in perpetuity in all forms of matter both here and yet unknown)? To a stoked-out teen desperate for stickers, it probably is, but the decisions we make in our teenage years are rarely made with foresight.
And just think how cool the Volcom logo would look on the nose of your coffin…